Wednesday, December 12

The Kingdom of Heaven and disillusion with authority

I received a letter from a reader asking what I've done all day, given that I had not put up a post or even a note about why I hadn't done so. Part of my day was spent in a sometimes heated exchange of emails with a correspondent. Below is some of my end of the exchange. My thoughts are not crystallized on the matter I discuss, but this post might be the closest I come to publishing anything about the deep concern I expressed in the emails.

What we are seeing unfold since the US invasion of Afghanistan is a still-building movement to completely demonize war; Ridley Scott's film The Kingdom of Heaven makes this quite clear, as does Wolfgang Peterson's Troy.

Of course this movement has its contradictory elements -- e.g., support for Palestinian terrorism against Israel and Chechen terrorism against Russia's government. But the movement plays into the hands of the enemy.

From that viewpoint, I argue that nothing is insignificant about the NIE debate, which I see as having great magnitude. I am not so much debating NIE as debating Wolfgang Peterson and Ridley Scott. Troy and The Kingdom of Heaven, both of which I saw within the past two weeks, were box office flops in the US but a success in Europe -- and KOH was also a success in Arab countries, including Egypt.

One may dismiss the historical inaccuracies in KOH and Peterson's mangling of Homer's telling of the Battle of Troy, but both directors were intent on portraying authority as evil and war under any conditions as having no merit.

Scott used Hamid Dabashi, an intellectual who is also an anti-war activist, as the 'history' consultant for KOH. Scott, according to Wikipedia, defended KOH's flights from the truth by saying that the script was "approved and verified" by Dabashi. Scott also said that in his opinion, Dabashi is an "important man in New York."

That latter defense of Dabashi is very funny. But Dabashi, as with many of his Iranian countrymen, and as with so many Arabs and Africans, is still caught up in a post-Colonial mindset. My rant a few days ago to Africans took aim at the mindset.

So the pivotal part of Dabashi's viewpoint went above Scott's head, and above the head of the KOH script writer. Yet I am trying to get at something more difficult, which I can't express adequately because I still don't understand it. Here's my best try for now:

Barack Obama is riding on the call for "change" as many political analysts term it. Lou Dobbs is riding on the same call. I am becoming fearful that change, in this context, is a stand-in, a symbol, for blind rage building against all authority.

Far from a cry for change, the rage is rooted in a desire to go back -- to return to a time when change was not happening so suddenly and from so many quarters.

That's why I warned yesterday that President Bush spoke too soon to support the NIE. At some point, people flip into a mood where they won't believe anything said by anyone in authority -- any kind of authority.

One may argue that Ridley Scott was simply duped by Dabashi but if you have seen the movie -- which Scott doesn't like because it was mangled in its theater release edits -- Scott's theme transcends Muslim-Christian themes and the Crusades.

The only 'good' authority in the movie is a leper who dies young and whose position is very tenuous. In other words, the only good in the world is too weak to stand up to the Juggernaut of evil authority in all spheres.

The Kingdom of Heaven taps into a spreading mindset in Europe that fears European Union authority, which fears being overrun by refugees from Muslim countries, which fears this era -- the era of globalization. It fears everything and flirts with nihilism.

It seems that Move On and other anti-war organizations are trying to import this mindset to the United States because it makes cannon fodder against Bush's preemption doctrine and war hawks. If so, the anti-war activists are handling something very dangerous because the mindset calls up the worst part of the Depression era.

But I am still trying to understand the mindset, and wondering whether it is tinder waiting for a match. If it is tinder, the match could be a sharp economic downturn in the United States that like falling dominoes engulfs emerging economies in Asia and Africa.

Yet I acknowledge your argument that the mindset I fear is no more than a small fleeting shadow on the sweep of history. Truly, this is a grand time to be alive, a grand time for human progress. But there is The War, which for many people distracts attention from the progress -- even though the war is part of progress away from tyrannies.

With regard to your comment about Corey and Jeff, they were not actually debating, to my reading; Corey, in his comment to Jeff's piece, was just underscoring that NCRI led him to Natanz but also that NCRI's original identification of the facility's use was incorrect.*

Corey's comment does not clarify whether NCRI led "US intelligence agencies" to their first bead on Natanz in 2002. I assume NCRI did provide the first lead, but it would be helpful to nail that down. And NCRI needs to defend themselves against Jeff's implication that NCRI intelligence is unreliable. Only in some cases, it seems; in other key aspects, they are on target.

I know you don't think my point is important. But this war, for the good guys, is all about pushing a peanut across a sawdust floor with one's nose, to quote Joyce Carol Oates out of context. Important battles about even the tiniest data mosaics. Credibility: how right has NCRI been in past? Very important question in light of the NIE key judgment that Iran shut down their nuke weapons program in 2003.

Afterthought: This is my nod to the complexity of Scott's film: I suppose that a deeply religious or spiritual reader, or a reader who is simply interested in questions of ethics, would contest my view of The Kingdom of Heaven. If you cast out many things about the film, yes, Ridley Scott does wrestle with questions about conscience versus expediency, and about what true spirituality represents.

He threw a great deal into the movie, as he did with Gladiator and Blade Runner. Yet I think a film about war, and which demands the viewer become deeply involved in the situations leading to particular battle, is a hard place in which to blank out all but spiritual issues.

An ironic coda: The Kingdom of Heaven is also a tribute to history's military engineers, although I suspect that some of the tribute ended on the cutting room floor. Scott's depiction of the siege machines used against Jerusalem is jaw-dropping. It brings home that the machines were weapons of mass destruction in their day. I don't think any other living director but Ridley Scott could have portrayed the ingenuity of the siege machine builders, and their destructive capacity, so well.

* From Jeffrey Lewis's post today for Arms Control Wonk:
[...] NCRI put out a press release declaring that Negroponte: Iran’s Uranium enrichment first revealed by Iranian Resistance. Well, not quite. I repeat, as I have before, that:

> In December 2002, Mark Hibbs reported that the US intelligence community, based on imagery and procurement data, had suspected that Iran was building a clandestine uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water production facility in Arak for about a year.

> Hibbs also reported that six months earlier, in mid 2002, the US briefed the IAEA on the intelligence, providing “precise geographical coordinates of the sites.”

> When NCRI held its press conference a few weeks later, in August 2002, they misidentified the purpose of the Natanz facility as a fuel production plant.

> In December 2002, Corey Hinderstein, then with the Institute for Science and International Secruity, was the first person to publicly identify Natanz as a gas centrifuge facility.

You can look it up.
Here is Corey's comment about the post:
Thanks for the props, Jeff. It bugs me every time I see it. They were close, and NCRI’s info led me to Natanz, but they did not identify it correctly.

Credit should go also to David Albright, since after I found the site on satellite photos we worked together to ID it as a centrifuge plant.

— Corey Hinderstein - Dec 12, 10:51 AM

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